History Wars

Removing the Stolen Generations

[First published in Quadrant, April 2010]

After decades of deluge about the evils of “racism”, discussion of the Aboriginal question invariably puts this word centre stage, but it is not a useful one and never has been. The discussion has more to do with culture than race, and the “Stolen Generations” story has been more about people of mixed descent allegedly and painfully separated from their culture than about real racial prejudice.

But what is “culture”? Is Australian Aboriginal culture, once separated from remote and isolated tribal conditions and thrust into the wider world, much different from say, Scottish or Croatian culture surviving into the suburbs? Is there much of it that is distinctive and worth saving in the modern world, other than a sense of identity and, for those who want it, a preference for mixing with their own kind or a minor badge of pride, like a tartan tie?

These are key issues of the “Stolen Generations” issue, raised anew by the third volume of Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

Essentially, the furore of recent times has been the charge that in earlier times the government protectorates “stole” the culture of mixed-race people by separating them from an Aboriginal environment—in effect, “stealing” culture from generations. In Windschuttle’s account, this does not withstand much scrutiny.

There does seem to be a frequent lingering ambivalence or sadness among Aborigines about white domination of their land, but this is not what the Stolen Generations is about. Nor is it about health, poverty or minor local prejudice.

Protagonists seem vague on what “culture” means. In a literal sense, the alleged government-sponsored“genocide” of “Aboriginality” cannot be true, since in the period of alleged destruction there was enormous growth in the population identifying as Aborigines, as well as in a sense of Aboriginal identity, not to mention Aboriginal art, and in advocacy politics.

Windschuttle says that before the Second World War governments usually left tribal “full descent” Aorigines in remote reserves or unallocated land and tried to shield them from harmful influences and provide extra food when necessary. Far from trying to destroy them or their culture, this approach was successful enough for their numbers to begin rising again in the early twentieth century, after more than a hundred years of precipitous decline. Any thought of assimilating them was for the distant future.

The principal concern—and the only one governments would pay much for—was for those people, mostly part-European, in regions dominated by white settlers. This is the chief “stolen” culture battleground. But Windschuttle says traditional Aboriginal culture had largely or wholly died out among these people by the late nineteenth century.

He might have added that any culture under challenge would struggle to survive for long when characterised by magic and sorcery, child marriage and polygamy, infanticide and a language confined to a few hundred people. Mankind’s experience over aeons has been that a technically and legally stronger culture will dominate when in serious rivalry with a less robust one.

Windschuttle’s accomplishment is partly to contest the Stolen Generations story over 600-plus pages of cogent detail but also to tell the story of the Protectors of Aborigines in the states and territories as presented in the records of more than a century. It is a very different story from that told over recent years in academic histories, politics, newspaper and television accounts, dramas, documentaries and films. These typically depict the government protectorates as malign and “racist”, out to control and debase Aborigines, destroy their culture, and in more extreme versions to destroy them in genocide comparable to that perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Some have called the Protectors “monsters”. Increasingly, politicians and commentators are employing the word brutal to describe past treatment of Aborigines. The Prime Minister has apologised before the world for past Commonwealth and state Aboriginal policies.

Windschuttle’s account from the record shows nothing remotely like that. The Protectors emerge rather as humanitarians, concerned for their charges, prepared to stand up for them, and not racially prejudiced, though there were the usual quota of mistakes. The issue, he says, was lack of action because of government parsimony rather than the draconian action alleged. Today this can sound a radical interpretation but it is what would once have been only what was expected of Australian society.

On Windschuttle’s calculations, between the late nineteenth century and 1970 the protectorates placed only about 8250 children in institutions for long periods, separated from families, mostly because they were found to be neglected, orphaned or abandoned children, under laws similar to, though not always identical with, those applying to white children. But of those 8250 many, perhaps most, were not forcibly removed—the precise circumstances of removal have not been recorded—and families were usually encouraged to stay in touch with removed children. He does not accept the argument, frequently heard, that the Protectors did not understand Aboriginal communal nurturing; he says it was breaking down.

Many of the children went to institutions for short periods during family crises, others again because their families wanted them educated beyond what schooling was available in remote areas, or because of illness or hungry times in drought. They were usually part-European. No functioning families were broken up.

Hardly any were full-descent (or “full-blood”) Aborigines from traditional tribal societies, apart from those boarding in mission schools not far from their tribal homelands. Only a minuscule number were fostered or adopted out to white families.

The institutions were mostly all-Aboriginal, apart from managers and teachers. There seemed no intention to destroy Aboriginal feeling, though Windschuttle concludes that history shows that teaching other than the standard state curriculum has never worked.

There were also special categories, such as the apprenticeships in New South Wales for outback or troubled teenagers to be apprenticed, mostly to whites, boys to learn farm work and girls domestic work. It was firmly encouraged, though not compulsory, and many apprentices did not stay long, especially if the boss was bad. Farming and domestic work were major employers in times past, and such training gave Aborigines a better chance of secure income than seasonal or casual work.

Numbers can only be estimated. A Bureau of Statistics survey in 1994 showed that 10.2 per cent of people then over twenty-five and identifying as Aborigines had lived in some kind of institution as youngsters. On this basis, the number of 50,000 separated from their families over about seventy-five years, given by Prime Minister Rudd in his apology, becomes plausible—but only if the many different categories are added together.

This is also the base figure used in Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 1997 report—except that in its introduction it said the number seemed too low, so effectively doubled it by saying that in some districts the removal rate was nearer one in three. This was the report which gave Commonwealth government authority to the Stolen Generations claim and catapulted it to national and international notice. For example, the best-selling US travel writer Bill Bryson’s Bryson Down Under, published for the 2000 Olympics, presented a literal version of a grand government plan to turn the Aborigines into brown-skinned whites.

As Windschuttle shows—and it is obvious to anybody who reads it carefully—Bringing Them Home operates at two levels. One is the unexceptional one of allowing Aborigines who feel aggrieved by institutional childhoods to tell their stories and, for some, to facilitate family reunions. It quotes selections from interviews with 535 different people, some with harrowing stories of emotionally blighted lives, but few with much memory of the reasons or circumstances of their removal. At another level, it is public relations—really, propaganda—for the anti-assimilation cause. The introduction, which is all most people read properly, makes sweeping, loosely worded allegations against government which are not developed or borne out by the contents. Much of the body reiterates the long-standing demands for compensation, an apology, a treaty and so on.

Windschuttle investigated some of the more serious complaints against institutions and says they cannot be substantiated. Many others read like the complaints you often hear about white boarding institutions, even upscale schools—often enough justified, but frequently there is another side to it. In buildings and food, the institutions varied from good to bad.

Pervading Bringing Them Home, however, is the theme of the spiritual deprivation caused by lifetime separation from culture. Again, there is another side to it.

Windschuttle says critics usually associate life on the Aboriginal reserves with traditional culture, but actually reserves in southern Australia decades ago had many of the same problems as those quoted so often today for the remote north, but without the support of at least some traditional culture. The old culture had long disappeared from settled areas after up to a century of contact with whites.

In New South Wales, the longest-settled state, even a century ago there were reports of traditional culture only in the most remote corners, and even there it was struggling. Nevertheless, the Protector supported it with supplies.

Many decades ago, observers spoke of “vice”, “dissipation” and “idleness” on the reserves. The southern reserves were usually intended as fallback support for poor Aborigines, with problems like unemployment, illness (including mental illness) and alcoholism. They offered rations, clothing, sometimes accommodation and other assistance.

But few Aborigines lived there for long. Most were bush or other rural workers. Windschuttle says that in New South Wales about two-thirds—up or down with economic or climatic conditions—lived independently of the government and were not under the protectorate. Some of these supplemented rural work for wages with traditional hunting and gathering for food.

The situation varied from state to state and time to time, but generally the protectorates were only concerned with those on the reserves, if only because this was all governments were willing to pay for.

The Stolen Generations furore arose from a pamphlet of this name by the historian Peter Read, who became the main academic adviser to the Bringing Them Home inquiry. He wrote the pamphlet, which was published in 1981 to mark the centenary of the protectorate, for the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. It is a bombastic, thinly researched little pamphlet which emphasises cultural deprivation. It probably reflected Read’s earlier work in oral history with Aborigines in central New South Wales, at a time of high activism and a rising spirit of Aboriginal grievance, nationalism and fundamentalism, for want of better words, among the more articulate. Windschuttle says it was originally to be “The Lost Generations”, but Read’s wife suggested the catchier title. It caught both black and white imaginations and the story took off.

Windschuttle shows that until then the issue had never been raised, even in the ebullient, “tent embassy” activism of the 1970s. It had no place in issues raised by earlier generations of Aboriginal activists, who were especially active in the 1930s; these were not short on grievances, but they were typically economic and a desire for a “fair go”. This period was much closer to the high point of alleged child “stealing”, when if it was a concern it surely would have been raised.

Read’s 1981 pamphlet, however, struck a chord. It is not to deny that there were many genuine grievances to say that some Aborigines found it congenial to blame governments rather than more complex, elusive and not always flattering reasons for their misery.

Child neglect is obviously an emotive charge and the background can be impossible to unravel decades afterwards. But hard cases do not make good history, any more than they make good law.

The media loved Bringing Them Home. The launch became a Watergate moment, the investigation that lifted the lid on a huge, hidden national scandal. Windschuttle remarks that the Human Rights Commission did not have the budget for independent research, but could manage a public relations campaign.

The report became a lightning rod for whites with diverse perspectives: Marxist and other socialist, anti-colonialist, religious, feminist, humanitarian, anti-racist. More importantly, the drama attracted film and television documentary makers and book publishers, and several high-profile memoirs followed. Windschuttle analyses the background to these and puts them in a class similar to Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory: popular advocacy rather than serious history.

A rising generation of historians, attracted to the new discipline of Aboriginal history but often lacking perspective and analytical experience—when not also practising advocacy by selective use of information—added a spate of new academic literature. It was not surprising that the combination of images and apparently solid academic work about suffering children made the Stolen Generations a favourite in school rooms across the country. But Windschuttle finds a vast dearth of accuracy.

Readers will remember the excitement when the report was launched. Tears came to many eyes. Suburban families had many a heated argument. ABC newsreaders referred to “up to 100,000 Aboriginal children stolen from their parents’ arms”. I have never seen journalism as biased and hysterical as that in the Age at the time; it has barely acknowledged yet that there is another side.

To question the story could seem hard-hearted and invite the “racist” sneer. Windschuttle finds, however, little substance in the report other than the quotations from people interviewed. The few references, when checked, are selective or from previous advocacy work, seemingly chosen to reinforce the story.

Critical background, but so sensitive that it is difficult to discuss, is the role of women in traditional culture. They were in theory owned by the men, who typically had three or four wives, chosen as babies and betrothed at puberty. The mothers were so young that their first children were often stillborn. Men lent their wives to visitors in return for gifts. This last practice degraded to something close to prostitution when whites arrived, with alcohol, tobacco, clothes, ironware and Western food. Inevitably, venereal disease, then rampant in the outside world, followed and was a major cause of a rapid fall in the Aboriginal birth-rate.

As infanticide was a traditional practice for maintaining a viable population, in early contact times mixed-race babies were killed as defective “yeller fellers”. As more survived, there were difficulties in fitting them into the tribal totem system and many were outcast as adults, or suffered prejudice or departed anyway to partially integrate into the wider society.

Part-European women had limited value in the tribes as wives, but were more attractive than full-descent women to whites and also to Asians, such as pearl divers. A rising generation of even lighter-skinned women, along with more exposure to modern society, complicated things further.

This situation arose everywhere during the early years of white–black contact, but with the growing populations of the north the 1930s saw much publicity and pressure for action from, for example, church women’s groups, over what was seen as increasing “prostitution” and “vice” in the north. Windschuttle reports accounts of part-European women being “sold” to whites. This was also part of the context for the “breeding out the colour” furore of the time, where the Protectors in Western Australia and the Northern Territory sought to encourage mixed-race people to marry whites. Windschuttle quotes copious documentation to show that this never worked in practice, never had government support and in any case was aimed at producing over generations honey-coloured people suited to the northern climate. He also argues that it had nothing to do with child removal or the Stolen Generations, except in the minds of recent advocates.

To me, the expression “breeding out the colour” sounds more like 1930s country talk than the cosmopolitan eugenics some see. There was also no discernible connection with the White Australia policy, easy as it is now to chuck it into the argument as makeweight.

In practice, as part-Europeans increased rapidly in number around that time, most chose to marry or mate with each other, usually outside the tribal structures. A substantial minority married full-bloods, with tribal acceptance negotiated, but many also married or mated with whites. Some of the progeny merged into white or else tribal society, but the overall picture was of the part-European population increasing everywhere and stabilising as a distinctive people.

The move away from traditional culture was emotionally traumatic for many Aborigines but others seemed to accomplish it more easily. Mixed-race people of any kind have famously felt torn between two worlds. Alcohol and health remained serious problems, but there were also many Aborigines integrating successfully into the modern world—whether two centuries ago or now.

Terms like half-caste are not necessarily racist. Until recently Aborigines used them; though the emphasis today is on asserting undifferentiated Aboriginality.

Most of this has long been known to anybody who did a little background reading, but Windschuttle has brought it together with a wealth of detail. Unless comprehensive rebuttal—not just cheap shots—follows, he has demolished the Stolen Generations story—to such an extent that reputations would be at risk if it was about a less politically correct subject. It is hard to see how much reconciliation the story has achieved.

Robert Murray’s latest book is 150 Years of Spring Street: Victorian Government: 1850s to 21st Century (Australian Scholarly Publishing).

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